Thursday, September 18, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me!

Having a birthday in another country is a strange experience, particularly when you’re way outside of both your comfort and time zones. I’d already had a wild night out with friends for our No Clothes Party and an amazing day of skiing and now I just wanted to relax. I decided to splurge and spend the day being pampered.

I’d been neglecting my hair to the point of resembling the Venus de Milo, so I asked around for recommendations for a cut and color and ended up at Chocolate Blonde in Taupo. From the moment I walked in the door I knew I had made the right decision.

We (my friend Luci came along to keep me company) arrived early (always allow time to be stuck behind a logging truck while driving on single lane mountain roads). As we flipped through magazines, each of us was offered our choice of coffee that arrived with a piece of chocolate cake on the side- and this was before we had even mentioned that it was my birthday! When they discovered that little tidbit of information, another piece of cake appeared, along with a complementary glass of white wine for each of us.

The stylist was good. Within a few words she knew exactly what I was asking for and how to explain it, the way a painter can tell you what type of brush strokes to use to make the clouds look different than the trees. We chatted easily with the other women, in typical hair salon fashion, about everything from work to fashion to the scary nature of Botox. Some things are just universal in the developed woman’s world.

There’s no use looking good if no one’s looking so we hightailed it back to National Park for dinner at Elvin’s. We popped a bottle of bubbly and took our time so that we could arrive fashionably late to Schnapps, where the rest of the gang was meeting.

Turns out we had no reason to rush because, despite claims of a band playing that night, it was a solo acoustic singer called The Ollie Knox Project who whined and strummed painfully before absolutely butchering a Pearl Jam cover. Luckily, the laughter of good friends always drowns out in the end. I ended up with a perfectly content start to the last year of my twenties. Good thing, too, because next year I couldn’t even get a visa!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Skiing Mt Ruapehu

It may have taken me two and a half months, but I finally made it up the mountain to try a day of skiing. Being a complete and total beginner I was dressed almost head-to-toe in borrowed gear- one of the perks of living in a lodge full of generous friends with opposite days off. This saved me from buying or renting: skis, boots, poles, gloves, thermals, waterproof pants and sunglasses.

In many social circles, reverting to talk about the weather is a safe and boring standby but in a skier’s life it’s absolutely essential. Too windy or cloudy and you can’t see five feet in front of you. Too warm and the snow turns straight to slush. I considered our ideal conditions of sunshine breaking through weeks of perfect snowfall an early birthday present and didn’t even bother bringing a jacket. I was, however, extremely adamant about applying sunscreen after working with walking cautionary tales sporting red faces and raccoon eyes.

Marc (more commonly known by his last name, Brooker) volunteered as my eternally patient instructor. An experienced skier and fitness instructor, he came up with different visualization techniques to help me with the various positions. Turning my toes out was “dancing”, going up hill was like “ice skating”, and turning toes in to slow down and stop was “pizza” (it makes the shape of a slice). Having trained in ballet my entire life, this last one was the most foreign to me, and unfortunately, stopping is a fairly important part of the process. I constantly had to remind myself to turn in, keep my weight on my toes and roll onto the inside of my feet.

Still determined, we skipped Happy Valley, the beginners hill, partially out of overconfidence but mostly because it gets overcrowded with kids and tourists and I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of plowing over another human being. I took three runs on the basic rope tow to get the feel for turning and stopping, with Brooker giving me a new goal (follow his path, wide turns, stop and start) every time. Convinced I was a natural we moved up to Rock Garden to try some real runs.

This is where I fell in love with the sport. Despite my inability to instinctually stop (toes, Toes, TOES!), I did a few successful runs with only three major tumbles. I was fearless after discovering that rolling on powder is just about as painful as an overaggressive massage, nothing I couldn’t handle. That was, until on my next run I managed to fall into a backwards somersault and smack the back of my head on the hill. Swaying slightly as I stood up, I decided it was time for a break.

We grabbed a quick coffee and headed to the café at the top of the Waterfall run. I took one look and decided this one would be pushing my luck so, after enjoying some great views, I rode the chair lift back down to where I was comfortable. I fell in love with Tennants Valley, which starts with a step hill but drops into wide, open space so I could coast without fear. After the last possible run, I tramped back to the car with boots on my feet, skis over my shoulder, and a triumphant grin on my face.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

No Clothes Party

I’m not sure if it’s an English thing, a traveler’s thing, or just the people I happen to surround myself with but while away from home I’ve found a common theme of people dressing up in crazy outfits to go out. The first time I heard the term “fancy dress party” I assumed it was similar to our formal dances back in America. I was definitely wrong.

We discovered a slew of September birthdays among the Chateau staff and tried to come up with a way to celebrate together outside of the limited options on the mountain that everyone was bored of. This was supposed to be something special. We settled on a night out in Taupo with one stipulation- everyone had to come wearing an outfit made of something other than clothing. One group started early with a pub quiz at Mulligan’s and moved on to dancing at Element until the rest of the staff could get off work.

With scarce resources on our fingertips (not to mention a limited time frame for those of us racing to catch at least last call after work) most people ended up in variations of bin bags, also known as can liners or trash bags to us "Yanks" (On a side note, when it was first suggested I kept thinking that people were suggesting we wear “bean bags”… got to love the English language barrier!). I grabbed the one thing in my room that wasn’t clothing and would still cover me, a towel, tied a tapestry around my head and called it a night.

One of the greatest things about the night was that all of us, whether we worked late or had to be up early, put in the effort to make an appearance. I’m not sure if it was the months that we had worked together or the fact that we all looked ridiculous, but any bonds that were formed felt cemented that night. Blood may be thicker than water, but garbage bags can definitely hold their own.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Prawn Fishing in New Zealand

Traveling can generally be divided into two schools of thought. First, you could attempt to learn how locals live their daily lives. This becomes a much easier task when your travels include long-term residency. Your best options include taking a working holiday, studying abroad, or staying with friends who can show you the sights not listed in every guidebook.

Option two is to take advantage of being on vacation and indulge in activities that you, or those native to the area, wouldn’t normally be inclined to do. These can fall along the lines of guided tours, visiting historical sights, or finding the perfect scenic backdrop for a photo op to memorialize your experience. You could even call them a traveler's guilty pleasures.

I generally fall more into the first category. It took me three years of living in New York City before I made it to the top of the Empire State Building, but I was thrilled when friends visited and suggested that I join them. Every once in a while you have to let your inner tourist emerge.

This is how I ended up at a prawn fishing farm in Taupo, New Zealand. I’d been to the town many times, as it’s generally the closest big city for us to go out for a night or do some decent shopping, but today’s mission was different.

We arrived at Huka Prawn Park, paid an admission fee and received a brief lesson on the best techniques to catch a prawn. Apparently, once you feel them take the bait on the end of your pole they have to walk around and show off their prize to all of the other prawns around them, so you don’t want to pull up as soon as you feel a tug. Instead, you’re supposed to follow them with your line as they stagger about with bravado, waiting for the jerk that means they’ve finally taken a bite before pulling them out of the water.

Some of us were better at this than others. Although I was one of the first to feel a tug on my line, I managed to either pull it up too early or wait too long and discover that they had eaten the bait and scampered off on their prawny way. We watched as the boys managed to catch a few (including Arturo’s monster prawn) and laughed as Keri squealed with a combination of delight and fear when she pulled hers out of the water but was too horrified to take it off the hook herself.

We brought our bounty inside to be cooked (slightly disappointed that our time and effort resulted in about one bite per person as opposed to the full meal we had been expecting) and hit the driving range in the meantime. There were inner tubes floating at various distances offering prize money for sinking a hole in one, but I simply prayed that it wouldn’t take me too many swings before making contact with the ball. I managed it in two.

We finished our afternoon with a stop at one of the more natural attractions of New Zealand- hot springs.
 After a stop at the store for some picnic food, we changed into our swimsuits and began vying for the best seat among the rocks. We sat back and enjoyed absolute tranquility- until it started to rain without a single trademarked umbrella in sight! Tourists may occasionally be better prepared, but it’s unpredictable moments like these that will stick in my memory long after the prawns have left the farm.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

“Weekend” in Wellington (Part Two)

Satisfied with our glimpse of the city’s nightlife, we got up early to dive into daylife expeditions (and check out of our room on time…). Without another night to spend in town, we decided to spend our bar tab on breakfast at the pub we had discovered the night before, indulging in eggs, potatoes, coffees, a bloody mary and soft drinks to take with us. We may have been one of the first teams in history to spend the minority of a bar tab on anything to drink!

The cable car came highly recommended by everyone we talked to, but we were greeted by miserable rainy weather that is apparently typical of Wellington. We took our chances anyway and, after a five-minute uphill ride filled with college kids and commuters, spent approximately thirty seconds appreciating glimpses of what would be a beautiful view through a cloud-covered haze.

We wandered through the largely unbloomed but fairly enjoyable botanic gardens, that I’m sure appreciated the drizzle more than we did, and took a brief shelter in the tree house, whose misleading name materialized as simply a visitor’s center and gift shop.

Slightly disappointed, we moved on to another highly recommended tourist attraction, the Wellington Zoo. Although it proved more difficult to find than one would imagine for a place housing the likes of lions, kangaroos and giraffes, it existed just outside of the city center and just off the edges of all of our maps. After a few circles and one stop for directions, we arrived to breaking blue skies. We took this as a good sign.

The zoo ended up being a highlight of our trip. Although a few of the animals sat disappointingly still, the swinging spider monkeys, swivel-necked mere cats, a chattering trio of inseparable otters and a pair of leopards intent on licking each other from head to toe were full of personality. We watched with a combination of childlike wonder and adult admiration and made up stories about the dramas in their lives. It wasn’t until the wildcats began to roar over a chorus of squawking birds that we realized it was diner time, both for the animals and our grumbling stomachs.

I had begun begging for us to eat at least one sushi meal, one of the things I miss most being at my fingertips in both Seattle and New York. We were, after all, in a seaside town and had spotted a “sushi” sign on Courtney Place the day before. It ended up being the type where you grab dishes off of a rotating river in the center of the room and your prices are color coordinated by the plates left when you finish your meal. This may not have been ideal, (or fresh?), but I took what I could get and built a stack halfway to eye-level to hold me over.

We couldn’t leave without trying Tuatara, “New Zealand’s finest beer” as boasted in a local newspaper. We stopped into a small bar filled with business men winding down from a long day of work and twenty-somethings getting a head start on the weekend ahead. We chose the wheat variety on draft, not necessarily overwhelming, but definitely an impressive note to leave this beautifully cosmopolitan town.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

“Weekend” in Wellington (Part 1)

One of the hardest things to reconcile on a working holiday visa is how to fit your holidays in around work. I rounded up three friends- Hannah, Tony Salmon (who everyone knows as “Salmon”), and Tim- who had never been to Wellington and we put in requests to our respective departments to get the time off. One of the things I had to get used to in this country is that our work roster runs from Wednesday to Tuesday, so technically we called this a weekend road trip.

After breakfast, we made it through a roughly four hour drive with minimal stops, entertaining ourselves by arguing over music choices and attempting to pronounce the Mauri names on street signs as we passed. We arrived at Base Backpackers in the afternoon where we dropped the car, checked in, and marveled at the size of our private suite and cleaner-than-we’re-used-to, non-communal shower for a fairly decent price.

Visually, Wellington reminds me a lot of San Francisco. The city sits right on the waterfront with ships lining the harbor, a few cobblestone streets, trendy dining and shopping districts and it’s very own cable car. My Lonely Planet boasted that, “Wellington is undisputed king of NZ’s nightlife with copious clubs, bars and other insomniac refuges,” so we couldn’t wait to hit the town.

We dropped our bags and began by scouring the neighborhood for lunch options, settling for the $15 lunch special at Coyote. Our stomachs quickly turned from rumbles to satisfied purrs and I rediscovered my love for a good draft beer with a Montieth’s Radler. From there we split into gender-friendly pairs so the girls could shop and the boys could hit up TAB gambling spots, but it wasn’t long before Hannah and I were ready for a nap so we dragged ourselves back to the room and collapsed onto our bottom bunks.

After the boys returned to rouse us out of bed, we showered, dressed up for the night and headed just down the street to a pub quiz at The Speights Ale House at The Shepherds Arms Hotel. It turns out that two Americans, an Aussie and a Swedish girl make a pretty good team because we won two pitchers of beer and a $100 bar tab to split between us! To be fair, we won both on lucky guesses of how many times the Earth could fit inside the sun (somewhere over 900,000) and by changing our answers to three questions in the bonus round three times. Our bar tab came a weeklong expiration date so we finished our beers and went to explore the rest of the town.

We started on Courtney Place, which everyone had told us was the heart of 

the city when the sun goes down, and bounced from place to place. We fell in love with El Horno, a cute little Spanish bar that played classic American music and served yummy sangria. We popped into Shooters, a multi-level club, to find four people on the dance floor and promptly turned on our heels to leave. Hannah and I spent a few minutes dancing at The Establishment where they had champagne drink specials for ladies night, but we took one look at the boys’ bored faces and agreed to move on. 

After stopping for one more drink at El Horno we ended up back at Basement, the bar in the bottom of our hostel, where everything behind the bar was $5. We plopped onto the couches and people-watched as couples who had far more to drink than we had paired off and danced around the subject of blatantly asking whose room was likely to have an empty bed. Before long, we called it a night, happy to have a double-bunk bed suite sorted out for ourselves, and geared up for a full day of sightseeing.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Road Trippin’

The best inauguration for a new car has to be a road trip, as long as you remember a few key elements:

1. Comfortable seating- Don’t try to cram too many people in the car or you’ll end up with a crick in your neck and drool on your shoulder. Seat belts all the way around is usually a safe bet.

2. Eat up- You don’t want to stop eight times along the way for pizza, burgers and water bottles so stock up on car friendly snacks and drinks before getting in the car.

3. Bathroom breaks- It may have been an annoying rule when you were a child, but every person tries to go every time you stop. A spare roll of toilet paper in the glove box can also save you from drip-drying through public restrooms worldwide.

4. Soundtrack- Save yourself from making small talk for hours with a solid mix of music to suit the taste of every passenger. Take turns creating iPod playlists or tune in to local radio stations to get a feel for what the natives are listening to. Classic rock that everyone can sing along to can be a lifesaver when you’re struggling to stay awake. On that note…

5. Sleep in shifts- Never leave the driver awake on their own. Consider the back seat fair game for napping but keep an alert pair of eyes and ears in the passenger seat to avoid both accidents and boredom- equally dangerous.

Let’s hit the road!

Friday, September 5, 2008

I Bought A Car!

Ok, to be fair I bought half a car. Well, technically I’m long-term-renting a car.

When our friend Ewan was leaving and selling his car, Tony and I were both interested in buying it but neither of us was keen on spending a ton of money. I approached Tony with the idea of sharing it, since we work in the same department and generally get opposite days off. On top of that, he wants to keep the car when he leaves the Chateau to travel further while I only want it as an escape from the mountain while living here. He's going to buy me out when our travels part paths.

So, I’m a joint property owner of an old Mitsubishi. It has its quirks- the rear window leaks, the defrost takes a while, the driver’s side lock is a bit moody…. Throw in that the steering wheel is on the opposite side that I’m used to and they drive on the left hand side of the road and every time behind the wheel becomes an experience.

But, all things aside, the freedom it brings is invaluable. I’ve driven to Oakhune, thirty minutes away, for a bagel and a good cup of coffee. It gives me the freedom to plan road trips or even have a night out on the town without working around someone else’s schedule.

Having relied on public transportation for almost four years I had a hard time adjusting to being isolated on a mountain without so much as a flashing taxi light or subway station in sight. Sure, traveling (for some) is supposed to push you out of your comfort zone, but I’ve discovered that one of the most important things for me to pack is control of my own destiny.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Give and Let Give

Human nature doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves. One of the most important attributes that I’ve found upon moving to both New York and New Zealand is the kindness of relative strangers- particularly in times of distress.

New Yorkers have a reputation for being a fast-walking, tough-talking, competitive breed but upon arrival I found a culture dying to feel a connection. One can’t stand on the street or stare at a subway map for five minutes without someone approaching with an offer to help. Complete strangers will start a conversation in an elevator or subway and, particularly while working in restaurants, patrons were dying to ask about your life story. Work acquaintances and fast friends were always willing to go above and beyond to help find a new job, place to live, or promote an aspiring artist’s show. In New York I found the strong support network absolutely necessary to cultivate a city of dreamers.

I was struck by a different kindness from the international travelers making up the Chateau staff. I was a little bit nervous to join a team slightly later in the season than most, afraid that previous friendships may have already formed impenetrable bonds. What I found was the polar opposite: a welcoming group of open arms, an open-door environment, and a willing trust to lend money, a car, or some advice at any hour of the day.

Truly beautiful colors were revealed during a recent bout with the flu that plagued almost every member of our staff. While some people were barely able to breathe or get out of bed, others were making runs to the pharmacy in town to pick up medication, lending magazines and movies to keep patients entertained, covering long hours at work, and even sitting in germ-infested rooms to dull the loneliness and boredom of being quarantined away from home. The selflessness and kindness that I witnessed gave my faith in humanity and my immune system enough of a boost to ward off this round of illness- and yes that’s the sound of me knocking heavily on wood!

I’m not sure if it’s the difficult pace and constant rejection of being a struggling artist in the big city, the isolation and backpacker’s conditions of a small mountain town, or the inherent goodness of people in general, but what I’ve seen of the world is far from what is reflected on the front pages of newspapers and gossip magazines. They are the small voices offering to buy you a coffee, recommend a word-of-mouth traveler’s destination, and pay forward the kindness offered by those before them. What I’ve seen is hope for our future.